Moscow has begun limiting natural gas supply to Poland and Bulgaria as Russia seeks to increase energy pressure on Europe. Ostensibly these moves are to encourage European buyers of natural gas to pay their bills in rubles. But Russia has a longer-term goal in mind.

Many private players within Germany, Austria and Hungary especially are lobbying their respective governments to allow them to continue doing business with Russia in rubles, hoping to sidestep sanctions. 

Why cut gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland? Both have older infrastructure linkages to Russia dating back to their status as former members of the Soviet Union. Both also serve as transit states to downstream customers. Russia can limit gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria without hurting primary consumers–and significant trade partners–in places like Germany, Austria and Hungary. Russia is also betting that Bulgaria and Poland will tap newer gas transit lines to distribute within their networks, which will then allow Moscow to pursue a variety of legal remedies against the two EU states. 

This is all being done with an eye of exacerbating the considerable EU and NATO cohesion that has seen a broad constellation of political, economic and military support for the Ukrainians since the Russian invasion began. Even if Europeans are broadly supportive of Ukraine conceptually, the Russians know that when the rubber hits the road (or more bluntly, if the natural gas doesn’t flow), Berlin and Vienna and Budapest will prioritize local economic and energy concerns over an abstract sense of supporting democracy in Ukraine. 

All of this to a point, though. The Europeans are showing many signs of shaking off decades of inertia and wishful thinking when it comes to finally doing the hard work of weaning off Russian energy. We see this most clearly when it comes to updating oil transport infrastructure. Russia needs to move quickly before buyers like Germany can easily source alternative crude supplies, and before its own fields must be shut-in due to a lack of buyers. Which makes natural gas the last strategic link. Moscow must walk a narrow line between applying enough pressure to break the European alliance, but not so much that Germany and its neighbors become convinced to sever its energy dependencies on Russia.

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